When I say that I'm all about small, sustainable changes for life-long health, I mean it. When I say that any program we design together has to work for you, I mean it. Which is why I try not to ever say there's only one way to be healthy, or one way to do things.
One of the ways this plays out is that I can advocate for eating canned fruits and vegetables. You've probably heard over and over again that fresh is best, and to shop the perimeter of the grocery store. While this advice is well-intentioned, it can leave us feeling confused or guilty when we reach for some convenience items.
The “clean food” movement has added to the food shaming around canned foods. Real talk? This attitude just makes people feel superior for not eating canned foods, and looks down on people who choose them. Ironically, this causes a defeatist mindset in some people, preventing them from even trying to develop healthy habits. Which I’m assuming is the opposite of what the movement is going for. At least, I hope it is.
With that in mind, below are my top 4 reasons you should be eating canned fruits and vegetables, along with a few things to consider when it comes to making the most nourishing choices for your body.
The Virtues of Canned Food
The long shelf life means you can keep things on hand for awhile before you need to use them. When your favorites are on sale, you can stock up without the fear of anything going bad. Also, the food is already prepped. No chopping required, which cuts down on your day-of prep time. If you have a meal you know that you (and the fam) likes, and it is made out of shelf-stable items, you will NEVER have an excuse for not getting dinner on the table.
Canned food can actually be more nutritious than fresh food. Since canned food is packaged at the peak of ripeness, you're getting it at its most fresh (just like frozen). While sitting on a truck, in a grocery store, or in the produce drawer of your fridge, fruits and vegetables lose vitamins and antioxidants. Canning locks in that nutrition, meaning you get more bang for your buck.
It is true that some nutrients are lost in the canning process - most notably Vitamin C. But other nutrients, like lycopene and beta-carotene, are actually made more available to us when the foods are heated. So tomatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes all benefit from the canning process.
Canned foods are almost always cheaper than their fresh counterparts. Also, they are more likely to go on sale, and are easier to stock up on at that time. Canned foods are available year round, so seasonal prices aren't as much of a factor. This makes canned items a major win for people on a budget, since you’re saving that money up front. Since they’re shelf stable, it’s pretty rare for canned items to go to waste, which again saves you money.
4. Improved Diet Quality
A 2016 study from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at the relationship between canned fruit and vegetable consumption and overall diet quality in both children and adults. The results linked eating canned fruits and vegetables with higher intake of some nutrients (protein, fiber, choline, potassium, vitamin A, calcium, magnesium, total sugar), lower intake other nutrients (total fat and saturated fat), and an overall higher quality diet.
There was no association with blood pressure and eating canned fruits and vegetables. I think this is significant because one of the top critiques of canned foods is the sodium content, and excess sodium intake is associated with higher blood pressure. Part of this may be explained by the fact that eating canned foods was also associated with a lower sodium-potassium ratio. Some researchers believe that it's not just the total sodium that is the problem for blood pressure, but the ratio of sodium to potassium.
Things to Consider
When you enjoy canned foods, keep the following things in mind as you are considering which options are providing the most nourishment for your body.
1. Watch our for that added sodium and sugar.
Choose beans and vegetables with no salt added or labeled "low sodium" or "reduced sodium". True, not all products have a low-sodium version that you can easily find. But when you have the choice - take it! Rinse your veggies before eating to remove even more of the sodium (up to 40%!). Avoid canned fruit in syrup - that's unnecessary sugar. Again, you definitely want to drain the fruit first. Rinsing the fruit will remove extra sugar, but it can also cause some loss of flavor, which is why just getting it packed in water or its own juice is all the more important.
2. Some canned foods contain sulfites,
which can cause respiratory problems in about 1% of the population. If you're in the 99%, the sulfites probably won't make any difference to you. But if you're concerned, read the label and avoid products with sulfur-based preservatives: sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfate, potassium metabisulfate or sodium sulfate.
3. Canned foods can carry a bacteria that causes botulism
if the integrity of the can is compromised. Just to be safe, avoid cans with leaking, bulging, dents, cracks, or if the food is discolored and has a foul odor. Food safety is always a factor :)
5. Cans can contain trace amounts of bisphenol A (BPA),
which has a known correlation to some cancers and developmental disorders. To reduce the risk, rinse canned foods, and look for containers that are labeled "BPA-free".
There are many great reasons to keep canned foods on hand for quick and easy meal prep. Also, don't forget that it's not just fruits and vegetables. Canned proteins are especially cheap and convenient - beans, tuna and salmon are excellent options. Sidenote: if you're going to donate food, this is a great place to focus. Instead of just reaching for whatever leftover food you have in the pantry, consider proteins - they are always a top need! Reach out to your local food bank for more information on how to maximize your donations.
My favorite canned foods to have on hand?
tuna (in water or oil)
salmon (no skin)
pumpkin (especially this time of year!)
Want more info, or some easy recipes? Check out Cans Get You Cooking for a great place to start!